Starting when the notorious terrorist leader found refuge in the company of Mullah Omar’s Islamic Emirate in the mid-1990s, Osama bin Laden became a vociferous proponent of constantly appearing in propaganda footage armed with a Soviet AKS74U “Krinkov”. Many have pointed to this being a very deliberate choice and not a haphazard appearance of a particular weapon system for maximum impact. If the leader wanted to simply demonstrate that he was armed in every recorded or photographed event, then of course any nearby rifle of sufficient weight and size could do. Indeed, the “Sheikh” could have pulled one off his Arab staffed security team at any time. But he didn’t, and instead he specifically chooses to be depicted in visual media as carrying the AKS74U. From what appears to be the time he began his work in Afghanistan and ending in some of his last televised propaganda messages, UBL constantly and consistently has an AKS74U by his side.
Why the Krink, and why all the time, never changing or alternating weapons? From my point of view through looking at the Krinkov in the context of the Afghan Mujahideen and later society that highly favoured it as a status symbol, it would appear that he used it to resonate with the local Afghans around him (which many Al-Qaeda fighters and previous Arab volunteers ironically and routinely found to be considered backwards and treated with disrespect), and the Afghans that would have been watching his televised speeches and interviews. The wider strategic goal of trying to influence Afghans might not have been a top priority as they weren’t a primary audience that UBL (CIA acronym for Osama bin Laden) was trying to win over (that mostly being extremists worldwide), so this may have just been a local consideration of what was viewed socially as being of a higher status. But on that note, being able to show extremists worldwide that he was carrying something more than a standard AKM or AKMS must have been an important consideration as well, that he wasn’t your “average terrorist with a standard Kalashnikov-patterned 16-inch barrel variant”. That being said, the AKS7U hasn’t quite reached the level and desire that it occupies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, elsewhere in the world.
For the benefit of our dear readers, I have looked through an inordinately unhealthy amount of photographs and videos of the departed UBL and arranged them by set location in this post. Altogether we have collected and analyzed 37 open source photographs of UBL carrying a Kalashnikov-patterned rifle, 34 of which are with the 5.45x39mm AKS74U (central to our article) in around a dozen different settings in which he appeared in either a legitimate news interview or a staged propaganda video message. Looking at these photographs from a technical perspective, we wanted to find out more about the AKS74Us being used by UBL. Did he really take a personal affection to the weapon or did he (or someone in his staff) realize the potential benefit of having them within arms reach at all times while being filmed? Was there more than one AKS74U? Were these his personal means of protection or did he simply borrow one from his security team everytime the cameras were rolling? Were they even operable, loaded, or even cleaned?
Through examining the available sources we can readily discern that there are in fact two 5.45x39mm AKS74U-pattern rifles that are present throughout every pose. From the lack of air vent ports on the wooden handguards we know that if these are of Soviet manufacture (which there doesn’t appear to be a reason that they might be Darra-origin craft produced) during or past the date of 1986. AKS74Us were manufactured into the early 1990s, concurrent with the timeline of Soviet support to the Afghan Army even after the 40th Army withdraw in 1989, so these particular AKS74Us were probably left over in Afghanistan from Soviet or Afghan forces before the government collapse and resulting civil war.
Differentiating between these two rifles becomes a bit tricky. We do know there are two because there is one lucky shot with UBL sitting next to his second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri and we get a good shot of both rifles in the frame. The hard part comes with finding the differences between the two when it comes to finish, texture, color, etc… Both rifles are fitted with 45-round RPK magazines in what appears to be every instance of the weapons in use by UBL (very common practice with AKS74Us in Afghanistan), so they cannot be ID-ed by the magazines. And because almost every photograph and video is taken with different equipment and by different photographers with drastically different settings, metrics such as the texture of the wood or the unique scratches on the weapons are difficult to make out. We can tell in the double rifle photograph that one of the rifles has a much lighter hue of laminate wooden handguard than the other, but without both in the same photograph every time, the way the light strikes the weapon makes it difficult.
But what we do have are slings. The slings are different on both rifles and this is somewhat stark in the double rifle picture. Not only are the colors in contrast to each other but they are of different configurations. One has an almost beige color that is actually an AK74 sling which has metal grommets holding one of the ends together, while the other is the standard tan web sling that is very typical of Soviet sling colors, but in addition it is being held together by two improvised fasteners because it appears to have ripped or at least broken somewhere along the way.
From what we can gather, it appears that UBL might have favored the beige sling AKS74U over the other one, it appearing in slightly more photographs than the tan one. But this may just be a statistical anomaly and he could have switched between the two often enough.
To address the obvious, basing small arms identification on an item such as a simple sling over several years isn’t the best practice. Weapons get cleaned, slings come off, inadvertently changed out with another, bad slings get replaced with better slings, the possibilities are endless. But in this particular situation, the sling is one of the only concrete and tangible constants that appear to exist in UBL’s rifles over the course of several years. We’ll be pointing out these points in the photographs that follow, grouped together by location or background of UBL’s various appearances.
Prior to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan
Looking at UBL prior to his notoriety
One important note about this scene is that this is the only set of photographs where we have the stock deployed. In every other photograph the sidefolding stock is collapsed (with the exception of the above photo). We know UBL came from an incredibly wealthy family, but could he have been entitled to the point where he never wanted to complete a simple task as deploying the stock?
An important note here is that this is the only time after UBL’s initial fighting in Afghanistan and the Sudan where he is pictured with an AKMS. After this photograph, anything other than a Krinkov goes away and out of frame.
With Mustafa Setmariam Nasar
Mustafa Setmariam Nasar was a Syrian Al-Qaeda sympathizer who visited UBL in the 1990s while in Afghanistan. These photographs of that visit have only become publicly available recently.
The “Carpet” Drape
This is our best close-up shot of the biege sling.
The image below is significant because it shows Ayman al-Zawahiri with a 5.45x39mm AKS-74 and mounted GP30 grenade launcher. As a prominent figure within Al-Qaeda, he obviously can’t be copying what the boss does every time on TV.
These images show the tan sling rifle on the left, while the beige sling rifle is on the right.
Although not the best resolution, we can make out one of the fasteners below, which is definitely not a part of the biege pattern.
The “Cracked” Wall
We get the best close-ups of the tan sling with the two fasteners in this setting.
Command Room or “Map” Background
One of the photographs of UBL with his son shows a good comparison with the white robes and the beige sling. This is the only photograph where the magazine might be a standard 30 round version, but it is difficult to tell from the angle.
Accompanying Personal Security Detail
Is the AKS74U in both of these pictures of UBL’s security team equipped with a tan or beige sling? The second photograph appears to be beige but what is more important is that UBL isn’t carrying a weapon at all. This supports the claim that he might not have actually been armed with them all the time, instead simply borrowing one or the other from his local security team for the purposes of photography.
Below we have another decent shot of the beige sling rifle and can clearly see that the handguard is of a light texture.
in this shot it appears that we are looking at the beige sling rifle again.
Where Are These Rifles Today?
The private museum that the CIA maintains at their George Bush Center for Intelligence in McLean, VA has a 7.62x39mm AKMS-patterned rifle that was found in the vicinity of UBL when he killed in 2011 during the Abbottabad Raid. Was this his personal weapon or did it just so happen to be in the area when he was killed, we don’t know. Is it historically significant? It is significant in that it was in his vicinity when he was killed, but I wouldn’t consider it historically important to the evil tale he infamously wove. One rumour I’ve heard is that one of these AKS74Us might actually be in the Dam Neck, VA headquarters of the special operations team that carried out the UBL raid, brought back as a trophy while the CIA might have gotten a rifle that also happened to be there but wasn’t nearly as relevant to history.